What the Mason Plumlee-for-Jusuf Nurkic Trade Means for Portland and Denver
A Plumlee, a Plumlee, my kingdom for a Plumlee!
Another semi-major domino in the NBA's silly season fell on Sunday, and yet another Plumlee was involved. This time, it was Mason Plumlee on the move, as the Portland Trail Blazers shipped him to the Denver Nuggets for very available big man Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers also acquired a 2017 first-round pick from Denver in the deal and sent back a 2018 second-round pick and cash.
While Nurkic was nearly a certainty to be moved, Plumlee is a bit more of a surprise. Despite the Blazers' struggles, he was enjoying career bests nearly across the board. Franchise player Damian Lillard is said to be stunned by the move.
Let's take a look at how the trade shakes out for both teams.
The Nuggets had made it known that they wanted to move Nurkic before the February 23rd trade deadline. Nikola Jokic has emerged as a tantalizing franchise big man, and a short-lived experiment playing the two together earlier in the season failed badly.
In just 108 minutes together, they racked up a -38 rating. If you check that same metric, you'll notice that Nurkic graded out in Denver's two worst cumulative defensive pairings as well: -195 in 500 minutes with Emmanuel Mudiay and -142 in 517 minutes with Danilo Gallinari.
Despite being a fan favorite due to his in-your-face playing style, the Bosnian Bear has struggled to find consistency in his three NBA seasons.
With Denver clinging to the 8 seed in the West, it's no surprise they'd try to cash in on him before his value completely disintegrates. They did give up a first-round pick to make it happen, but a quick glance at their assets shows that they're owed a top-five protected first-round pick from the Memphis Grizzlies anyway, plus multiple second-round picks in 2017.
They also currently have just over $58 million in salary committed for 2017-18; even if they hang onto Gallinari and he exercises his $16 million player option in addition to that figure, they still have plenty of cap space.
Plumlee is a restricted free agent following the season, and given the going rate for big men in the NBA, Denver is likely to use a chunk of that cap room to retain him. They'll be hoping the 26-year-old center's combination of passing, rebounding, and defense will be a better fit next to Jokic, and style-wise, that makes good sense.
Plumlee has posted a positive defensive box plus/minus in each of his four NBA seasons; this is even more impressive when you consider how putrid Portland has been on defense this year. Considering Kenneth Faried is still signed for multiple seasons, Denver is locking in their big man rotation for the near future.
Portland Trail Blazers
For Portland, the move makes good sense, too, though the reasons are a lot more financial.
With C.J. McCollum's extension kicking next season, they have nearly $130 million in guaranteed salary on the books for next year. With Plumlee set to enter restricted free agency, it made sense to move him out for Nurkic, who doesn't hit that particular milestone until after next season.
On the court, it's a risk, but there is clear upside. Nurkic is undoubtedly talented, and still just 22 years old. Even though he's struggled to remain in the rotation this year for the Nuggets, he's shown marked improvement in his efficiency (50.7% from the floor, previous career high was 44.6%).
He's also cut way down on his fouls: after averaging more than six personal fouls per 36 minutes in his first two seasons, his mark this year is just 3.9. With that said, his block percentage and defensive box/plus minus both plummeted this season, so maybe there was something to his being more physical in limited doses.
Can Nurkic regain his mojo in a starting role? It's clear that given what Portland gave up for him, he'll be given every chance to be a major piece for the team, if only because they lack other options.
Festus Ezeli is out indefinitely and probably for the season and has an un-guaranteed deal for next year (meaning he might also be dealt). Ed Davis might see some minutes at center out of necessity, but he is a better fit at power forward.
Right now it looks like a rare win for both teams.
Denver gets a useful player they can insert into their lineup immediately and extend in the offseason. Portland gets a high upside and cost-controlled young talent, and even if Nurkic doesn't work out, they've nabbed yet another first-round pick in the 2017 draft, something that adds much needed cost certainty to their roster moving forward.
There's upside to the deal for both teams, but the floor of it appears to be one that makes good sense all around. More common-sense driven deals like this one please.